Expect the unexpected…

I have it on no less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the advice given in the title is (a) glib and (b) a contradiction in terms.  I fear it will be difficult to speak to (a) without risk of appearing glib myself, however, I feel on safer ground with (b).  It is quite possible – and probably wise – to expect that something unexpected will occur without needing to have any idea what this might be or when it might happen.

Being single, my life is very self-directed – if we ignore the demands of work – and yet is full of unexpected moments (and even longer events).  I suspect the incidence of the unexpected has risen since I started to spend ever more time away from the orderly tedium of my home life – all this interaction with other people and the world at large must be having an effect.  This post started as an idea earlier in the week following a couple of encounters with the unexpected, but I fear may rather have grown over the following days.  I shall try and manage its length by sticking to short vignettes (and relying on the power of the image) from my week, but my logorrhoea may get the better of my good(ish) intentions.

During the interval of a gig…

…watching (but not listening to) a very low budget promo by Lost or Stolen for their upcoming single release.  The live video had something in the nature of a shrine about it, with tealights surrounding a plectrum raised upon a dais made of a pencil eraser.  From time to time, divine revelation would enter the frame in the form of words written on post-it notes – very much the clay tablets of today’s busy deity!  I was expecting some sort of blood sacrifice to propitiate the holy plectrum, with the precious fluid being absorbed by the eraser but, sadly(?), they stopped short of this level of commitment.

IMG_20171115_134649

An historic re-enactment!

During my piano lesson…

…lying underneath the grand piano while it was played by my teacher.  It was certainly a new experience, but I’m finding it hard to put the insights I gained into words.  It was, I suppose, a logical(?) continuation of the tour of the grand piano I’d enjoyed at my previous lesson – and my first hands-on experience with a grand piano.  I have now used all the pedals in purposive manner – and realised late last night that my own piano-substitute has a sustenuto pedal (which I shall be attempting to use later).

…smashing my head, with some force, into the lid of the same grand piano.  I had to say Messrs Kawai and Sons need to rethink the design of their pianos – the lid, which is black against a black background – projects some significant distance out from the rest of the case when the keyboard is in use.  A chap innocently laughing it some pianistic solecism just committed could (and did) easily injure himself!  My piano teacher found himself in the difficult-to-pull-off superposition of laughter and concern: I feel he acquitted himself well given the challenges of macroscopic existence.

At Playlist in the Butcher’s Hook…

…the glorious conjunction of diverse but wonderful music was entirely expected.  The unethereal vocals of Stanlæy accompanied by two fae from the Winter Court, extraordinary guitar sounds from Ben Jameson and the first public performance by Somerset folk-collective Zaffir were a reminder of why Playlist is one of the cultural jewels of the city.  My unexpected discovery was the existence of microtones in the amazing new piece composed by Ben and commissioned by Playlist.  I have tried re-creating these on my acoustic guitar at home, but I may need to get some more tips from Ben for better results.

…the delicious Cambrian Root by Vibrant Forest: a salt liquorice porter.  So many of my loves brought together in one tiny space!

Strolling home from the Butcher’s Hook…

…talking to a friend on my phone (I know, shockingly used to speak to another human!) to discover that he had found wholly unanticipated love.  The heavy irony of finding, halfway through our conversation about love, that as I strolled twixt the Aldi car park and an industrial diary (well, I don’t reckon it had ever seen a cow) I was unwittingly in the (or of one of the) city’s red-light district(s).  So little do I know of gland games, that it was only when the third young (from my perspective) lady said hello and then went slightly further in her salutation did the penny finally drop.  Until that point, I had merely thought that people were slightly friendlier than usual and that the lateness of the hour (and our friend Johnny Ethanol) had helped ease their traditional British reserve.  Is it any wonder I remain single when even those with a financial incentive in raising my interest in matters of the loins struggle so badly to achieve their goal?

At the launch party of the new NST City theatre…

…being asked if I had a job other than writing my cultural blog.  This left me somewhat taken aback, as I hadn’t realised this was a cultural blog (unless the culture in question be me).  I was also pleasantly surprised that someone though this farrago might be sufficient to finance my continued existence.  I fear it is far too short on insight and far too long on weak jokes, niche references and attempts to demonstrate my (largely illusory) erudition.

…chatting with a chap in want of silver hair.  I offered him mine (I have an ever increasing abundance), but in a major failure of the supposed perfection of markets this transaction was impossible to carry through despite two willing parties.

…chatting about going vegan not for the sake of the planet or the animals, but as an economic choice to reduce costs.  A fine idea – very much in line with the teachings of Katherine Whitehorn in my youth – but I felt slightly weakened by the need to buy almond milk at much greater cost that its dairy equivalent.

…finding myself thinking, while in the stunning new theatre, that it didn’t feel like I was in Southampton: and then worrying why.  Even my photo of the entrance has an air of unreality about it.  I feel my thought was not disloyal to my adopted city but a reflection of the fact that I’m used to the city’s older and/or re-purposed venues, few of them much younger than me.  There look to be exciting times ahead: I hope their insanely(?) ambitious plans to strengthen and develop a sustainable cultural scene in Southampton, across the full range of culture, bear a bumper harvest of fruit.  Roll on (or up/down) the nano winches!

At a Film Week showing of short films…

…being surprised by the nature of the Jane Austen lecture theatre: not a hint of wood panelling or even one over-stuffed leather armchair.  Very much a modern university lecture theatre: so, much like a cinema, but with more USB charging points and less comfortable seats.  It also lay, rather unexpectedly, in a basement below a spaceship which had become inexplicably trapped in an atrium (or was the atrium built around it?).

IMG_20171115_204905

No sign of the extra-terrestrial Postman Pat (or any black and white companion)

…finding myself enjoying a piece by Skepta (it arose in my favourite of the short films).  I suspect I may not be his primary target audience, more some unanticipated bycatch: he should probably throw me back to avoid harming the wider ecosystem.

I feel this conceit could be re-used in future to link other disparate observations which the author is too lazy, or unskilled, to draw together into a coherent whole.  I think the only lesson we might take from these 1300 odd words is that if you go out and also talk to people, unplanned things happen – and many of these are delightful!

123

Sorry spreadsheet fans, but this will not be about Lotus 123 – a tool which played such a major role in my early working life.  I still remember those heady days of the mid 80s with an original (monochrome) IBM PC: loading MS-DOS from 5.25″ floppies before I could load 123 from another floppy disk and then finally start work.  There was more time for contemplation of the human condition in those days, while you waited for stuff to happen…

No, this post will be about my latest, waltz-based obsession (a mere couple of centuries after a similar craze swept through Europe) – so should should have been reading the title with the stress on the 1 (an effect I was unable to accomplish with WordPress).

Until recently, I don’t think I have ever believed I am possessed of any particular musical ability.  I have recognised that I can, through diligent application, achieve a basic level of competence and occasional even move beyond ‘banging the f**king notes’ to achieving something almost musical.  These rare moments of ‘flow’ – in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a name which, for some reason, I struggle to remember) – have been particularly precious as a result.  This is broadly the same view I have on my skill with other languages: I don’t have any particular gift in this area, but am willing to put in some effort to try to slightly subvert the all-too-accurate stereotype of the Anglophone abroad.

However, recently I have began to accept that I may have some musical ability.  I think this blog has already laid the groundwork for the fact that I am not tone deaf and that, despite my protestations, I do have some rudimentary sense of rhythm (though a forthcoming post on dance will place an upper bound on that particular skill!).  This week has been more of shock to my long-established self-image.

As previously noted, I had piano lessons for a period in the mid 90s and I have the belief that at my peak I was a weak Grade 4 practical pianist with little or no theory.  Given my rather desultory approach to practice in the couple of decades which have allegedly passed since the mid 90s (for my money, the jury is firmly out on that much time have elapsed) I assumed my ability would have deteriorated.  It was a bit of a surprise when my new piano teacher suggested that in his opinion I was playing somewhere around the Grade 6 level: even more of a surprise given that, while my playing in front of an audience has definitely improved, he has not seen anything like the best of my abilities in action.  He seemed insistent and so acquired, on my behalf, the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano Exam Pieces book for 2017 and 2018.  I believe, on one metric, this is the most expensive book I own at just over 80p per page – however, it is worth every penny!

ABRSM6

I could almost be looking in a mirror!

My current obsession is piece B:2 the Valse Lente by Oskar Merikanto: a Finn I had never heard of until Wednesday.  It is such a divine piece of music, that while we are only on day 3 of my time with it and it is Grade 6, my playing of it brings tears of joy to my eyes (which frankly disrupts my ability to sight-read).  My right foot even seems to (somehow) naturally make use of the pedal: without the usual panic and mental collapse that adding the use of my foot (to the two hands already committed to the musical project) traditionally engenders. Some of the chords are so heart-achingly beautiful and the way the music moves so glorious that I am constantly amazed that I am allowed to play it.  Sometimes life delivers experiences literally beyond one’s wildest dreams: though this may be more of an indictment on the quality of my dreams (or ability to later recall them) than anything to do with the quality of my performance.

Also in the same book, with which I have had a brief dalliance, when I could tear myself away from the Valse Lente, is Cruella De Vil (from the Disney version of 101 Dalmations) which has the wonderful instruction that it should be played “with swagger”.  Swagger is a little way off, but I’m convinced it lies within my grasp!

There also continues to be progress with the guitar.  I have had to acquire a new tutor, as my old teacher has fled to the Midlands to pursue his musical dreams – which are more extensive than just being spared my ham-fisted attempts on the guitar (or so I like to imagine!).  Whilst attempting a little finger-picking pattern yesterday, we discovered that I could actually inject a little swing into my performance!  (I think we should subtitle this post ‘swagger and swing’).  I even showed a little promise on the subject of knowing when to change chord when accompanying a melody.

I have found myself wondering about this mid-life musical flowering and what might be its cause.  Malcolm Gladwell had made a reasonable living from the idea that 10,000 hours of practice at a skill will deliver mastery: though I vaguely recall this derives from an original study of rather a modest number of Japanese viola players and so may not generalise quite as far as its penetration of the popular zeitgeist would suggest.  I am thinking of writing my own book about the importance of letting any skill lie fallow for a good couple of decades as the key to mastery.  The importance of benign neglect and procrastination I think is under-recognised in today’s always-on, instant-gratification society!

Being more serious, I think having two instruments on the go (three if we count the recorder) may help as insights gained on one feed into the other.  Acquiring a little musical theory has also been helpful as it has provided a framework into which new knowledge can fit.  But, I suspect the sheer amount of time I have spent at gigs across a huge range of genres watching, listening to and even talking with musicians may have provided the largest fillip to my musical abilities.

The way things are going, there is a growing risk that 2017 may see me compelled to play an instrument in public in front of an audience that are not actively engaged in teaching me at the time!  I think a paying audience remains a long way off, so I shan’t be giving up the day job just yet…

Momma didn’t raise no fool

Despite the title, this will be about the author – though, as will become clear, any lack of foolishness only applies to a very limited arena.

When I was a wee lad, of only some 5 or 6 summers, my parents sent me to have piano lessons with one Mrs Heath – who at the time seemed an unbelievably elderly crone and I now hope was not in her forties (I’m fairly sure she was actually old).  This did not take and I swiftly gave up the piano for many years.

In the mid 1990s, I returned to the piano having watched the film Groundhog Day and been inspired by Bill Murray’s fictional progress with the instrument.  I took regular lessons and even practiced between them on somewhat regular basis.  I have some reason to believe that I reached the dizzy heights of a poor Grade 4 (without any theory) at this time.  However, I then moved and a 200+ mile commute for piano lessons seemed impractical.  It was clearly time to find a new piano teacher!

At this stage, some time passed.  A mere two decades or so seem to have elapsed.  In this hiatus between teachers, I will admit that my application to regular practice has been less than exemplary and I would have to further own that my skills have at best stagnated – and, if I’m honest, deteriorated.   However, I think even my harshest critic would struggle to claim that, like a fool, I had rushed into selecting a new master to take me as his disciple.

As those unfortunate enough to have befriended me on Facebook – or, worse, had my friendship thrust upon them – will know, this past Tuesday I finally had my first piano lesson of the bright new/only mildly tarnished millennium. Many lessons were learned!  Some of which I will share with you gentle readers…

To avoid annoying the neighbours (and more publicly embarrassing myself) with the relative poor and repetitive nature of my piano practice, I have for many years listened to my piano playing only through headphones.  The instrument sounds rather different when its vibrations are allowed to interact with a whole room before hitting my ears.  I say this not to excuse my performance, merely as an interesting side note.

It has also been many years since I have had an audience for my piano playing.  It would appear that, much like events in the quantum domain, my piano playing is affected by the presence of an observer.  Were I to know the precise location of any finger, I would have absolutely no idea as to which note it should have been playing and vice versa: curse you Heisenberg!  There was also a small issue of my left-hand, in particular, coming down with a nasty case of the hippy hippy shake – to the extent that my teacher inquired whether this was a pre-existing condition.  Luckily, that evening I bumped into a friend who is also learning the piano later in life and who suffers from exactly the same symptoms – in her case, her teacher thought she had Parkinson’s – so I am not alone.  I do not have this problem with the guitar – perhaps because from the start I have played it to a small audience (my guitar teacher) – so I have some hope that I can recover from this nasty attack of shy competence.

Despite the prolonged car crash – as I perceived it – that characterised my performance during my first lesson, my teacher was surprisingly positive about my skills.  I think at one stage he accused me of demonstrating some musicality – or at the very least following the marked phrasing and dynamics.  This may, of course, by a cunning teacher’s trick to boost a pupil’s self-worth and if so, it has worked like a charm.

It was, frankly, amazing how much I learned in the course of this first 21st century lesson.  A lot of bad, or at best marginal behaviour, can become ingrained over two decades.  As can a worrying degree of blindness: I discovered the importance of the note D to a piece I have been playing – on and off – for 22 years.  Suddenly, the chords make so much more sense – rather than just being random jumps of the left-hand across the keyboard.  In recent blog-related news Hanon is out!  My route to the world of the virtuous pianist will not involve his sixty exercises – yay!  In their place come interesting new scale-based exercise that my fingers are itching to get to grips with (gratification has been delayed by travelling for work and the absence of a practice piano for guests at the Premier Inn).  I even have a couple of pieces to prepare for my next lesson: an actual, externally-set objective!  In bad news for my neighbours, I have decided to start practicing without headphones.  I feel this ups the ante for my concentration and may help with the audience issue: summary eviction will be small price to pay!

So, let’s raise a toast to old dogs revisiting old tricks and then (whisper it quietly) learning new ones!

Board hubris

Robert Browning places the phrase that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” into the mouth of the Italian Renaissance Painter Andrea del Sarto.  Today, I have twice attempted to follow this indirect imperative from Victorian poetry: my primary go-to (or go-sub) resource for advice!

I have for some time possessed a copy of Hanan’s The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises, a book I clearly acquired under false pretenses as I have never exceeded a rather poor Grade 4 standard at the piano.  As part of an attempt to reduce procrastination in at least a few areas of my life, I have decided I had better start making some progress or my death may pre-date my becoming a virtuouso pianist.

Hanon

Soon(ish) this will rightfully be mine!

Prior to today, I had never moved beyond exercise 2.  However, over the weekend I had played exercises 1 and 2 twice, back-to-back on both days.  I won’t say that my performance was entirely error-free, nor that the playing proceeded in line with any constant metronome mark (well, not unless some gravitational waves of unprecedented magnitude passed through my flat) .  It certainly wasn’t achieved without a fair degree of pain from my hands and forearms – but it was achieved!  So, bolstered with this modest degree of “success”, this morning I turned the page to exercise 3.  This starts by telling me that I should be aiming to play exercises 3 to 5 without a break – and not just once, but three or four times.  Each of the exercises contains basically the same number of notes, so this is three-fold increase in the physical endeavour required: I fear there is a whole world of pain to come!

Still, I am determined (at the moment) and a one-off attempt at exercise 3 wasn’t too tricky: so there is hope.  Virtuosity may be within my grasp before whatever replaces the telegram arrives from who (or what) ever replaces the Queen.

In a further attempt to move my piano playing up a level (or, at a minimum, reduce its rate of descent) I am also trying to spend less time watching my fingers and more time looking at the music.  This has the advantage that when something goes wrong I know where I am, the downside is that my fingers don’t always go where I intend.  However, on balance it has worked much better than expected: my fingers generally seem to know more about playing the piano than any higher level executive function available in my brain.

Buoyed by the vaguely success-related feelings arising from moving on with Hanon, I decided to tackle some new exercises on my guitar.  Workouts 1 to 4 were going alright, so I tried workout 5.  This went very well, and hubris may have got the better of me.  In my o’erweening arrogance, I turned to workout 6.  This requires each of my first three fingers (index, middle and ring) to reside on adjacent frets.  My little finger starts on the fret next to its ring brother, but is then expected to move another fret closer to the body of the guitar whilst all its friends remain where they were.  This is clearly physically impossible for any, except (perhaps) a few freaks of nature!  Or I would think that if I hadn’t seen a large number of apparently normal people doing it.  Given these sightings were at gigs, my sample may have been somewhat self-selecting but I think I am forced to conclude that this sort of stretch is possible for a baseline human: just not (current) me.   Somehow, I have to discover the secret to cutting the apron-strings that tie my little finger to my ring finger – Hanon is helping them act independently, but a different sort of independence seems to be needed for the fretboard of my guitar.

Should I be seeking some sort of finger yoga or Pilates for my left hand?  For not only do I have to move my little finger into position once, but I then have to allow my other fingers to join it and then cruelly leave it divorced from its fellows once more – and then repeat this process multiple times.  Once again, I see pain on the horizon – and before then a lot of experimentation with my phalanges to try and achieve the position even once and with the other hand (and possible some gaffer tape) helping!  Still I like to think that what I lack in other personality traits, I make up for in bloody-mindedness so I shall keep going.  How could I not?  Hanging out with young musicians I know just how profitable a career in music can be!

And as the Minute Waltz fades away…

Rafał Blechacz moves on to play Chopin’s Op. 64 No. 2 waltz in C# minor (the Minute Waltz being No. 1 in Db) – which is so much better than Nicholas Parson’s dulcet tones introducing us to the panel.  Young Master Blechacz started to learn the piano at the same age as me, and is a lot younger, but he must have stuck at it rather better as his fingers performed acrobatics across the keyboard that I can barely imagine, let alone hope to accomplish.  Still, I bet he is far less au fait with the power stations of Europe than I, so it’s very much swings and roundabouts.

I have been listening to Just a Minute for longer than I can remember, though I am actually marginally older than the series.  I still find much to enjoy in the series – Ian Messiter’s game is a work of genius – but I feel this enjoyment takes place in spite of the venerable Mr Parsons (91!).  I am trying to remember if it was ever thus, or if I used to enjoy Nick’s interjections when I was a lad (and he was already older than I am now), but I can’t.  As an adult, I do enjoy the revolving of panel members and substantially greater representation of the stronger sex – whereas as a child I suspect I enjoyed the consistency of Freud, Jones, Nimmo and Williams.

I think Jack Dee on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue may have hammered the final nail in the coffin of Mr. P’s contribution to the show, the parody is so accurate it now dominates the original.  Then again, it will still feel like a missing tooth should Nick ever leave the show.  During the credits of ISIHAC, I still expect to hear Wille Rushton’s name after Tim Brooke-Taylor’s, despite the fact that he went to his eternal reward in 1996 and I think I have now heard more editions of the show without him than with (but the Willie Rushton years were the formative ones for me).

As the above might suggest, I am a great lover of radio comedy – it always seems to work better than its televisual cousin.  My latest love is for the Elis James and John Robins show on XFM – I listen via podcast which saves time and removes the adverts (which for me make commercial radio unlistenable in its live form).  I have enjoyed both individually as stand-ups, having seen John rather more often than Elis, but as a double-act they are absolutely hysterical.  If I still drove (well, more than annually), their podcast would be on the banned list – with only ISIHAC (under Humph’s chairmanship) for company – as being too dangerous to listen to while in control of a motor vehicle.  At times they have literally caused me to cry with laughter, so they are now only listened to at home.  The show was funny from day one, but seems to be becoming stronger each week – though that may be partly because I now know them (and their strange obsessions – in Elis these seem part of a well-rounded personality, in John part of a pathology) better.  If ever I am feeling blue (in private and when not operating heavy machinery), it is to EJ&JR that I now turn.

Laughter in public spaces is oddly frowned upon in this country.  A few years back I was reading a rather amusing book (I no longer remember which) on the Victoria line in London and laughing, as required – at some stage I looked up to find the entire of the rest of the carriage were staring at me.  For the avoidance of doubt, this was not supportive staring (if such a thing exists) but more fear that I might next run amok with an axe (or similar).  I also seem to recall as a teenager laughing at a book whilst waiting to be seen at Maidstone eye hospital – and once again, my mirth being frowned upon.  Given how depressing this world can often be, I think a little more public laughter would be a good thing – and despite the continuing disapproval, I still try and do my part.

Perhaps to close I should explain why this post exists at all.  Last night, at Turner Sims, I did see Mr B play the whole of Chopin’s Op. 64 – and so my tiny mind started a-whirling.  I was also served by one of the bar staff who had recognised me (and eventually I, him) when we bumped into each other at the Art House on Saturday night.  Does this make me an alcoholic?  Increasing numbers of bar staff on the University of Southampton site now recognise me by sight (even out of context)?  Am I drinking too much?  Or am I just more memorable than I think?   Maybe it is just my age, being in possession of neither a Student nor a Senior Railcard probably does help mark me out from the crowd!

Jazz, hands

This last weekend, I returned to Cambridge once more – staying at Sidney Sussex college, which is very central.  It did bring back memories of my own first year in college, which was similarly situated albeit in the dreaming spire adorned arch-enemy of my weekend destination.  Ostensibly, I had returned to enjoy a few of the delights of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival – but did manage to tack on some additional fun.

The jazz component of our title was delivered by Ms Jacqui Dankworth and “her musicians”.  Not perhaps my usual cup of tea, but really quite entertaining.  Ms D may not have had a great relationship with her mother but does seem, nonetheless, to be turning into her (a state of affairs which, I seem to recall, Algernon Moncrieff described as the tragedy of her sex).  She also has a condign mastery of the breathing required to sing – something which I rather lack.  Despite somewhat more than 48 years on this planet, my breathing is still surprisingly poor – and this may be exacerbated by my gymnastic ambitions.  Having abs (and, indeed, a core) of steel is vital when hanging from the rings, but is less useful when trying to provide the oxygen supply needed for a decent vocal performance.  This may explain why so few opera singers have been gymnasts (and vice versa).  Despite this obstacle, I did have great fun with the groupetto and Handel’s O sleep, why dost thou leave me? during the singing lesson I managed to slot into the weekend.  I did, however, begin to suspect that my singing teacher’s choice of breathing exercise was more designed to use the student as a human fan than prepare my body for the rigours that were to follow.

Hands were delivered from many places over the weekend.  There was some fine piano playing with Debussy in the mercifully air-conditioned Howard theatre and a rather toastier concert in Gallery 3 at the Fitzwilliam Museum over Sunday lunchtime.  There was also the laying on of hands as my massage therapist once again attempted to return my ageing body to some semblance of its lissome prime.  Once again, my actions – in this case the content of post 500 – generated some surprise: despite being clearly telegraphed (née promised).  The session also generated some rather fruitful ideas to work into my pursuit of dating excellence – of which more will follow in later posts – and a further challenge for me to take on: of which more in the paragraph which will shortly be arriving into platform 3A.

In the narrow vestibule where a chap awaits audience with his therapist is a modest range of reading material.  This comprises a sizeable joke book, a thinner volume on cycle maintenance (this is Cambridge, after all) and a very small selection of (now) rather aged magazines.  I felt that the magazine selection could usefully do with a refresh and it seems it is down to we, the clientele, to take this project in hand.  Ancient copies of Punch or Countrylife would be, frankly, too dull – so I have taken it upon myself to bring a more interesting offering each time I visit.  I am looking for the most obscure, limited readership, magazines possible.  These should have nothing at all to do with Cambridge or massage, but should be suitable for a family audience – I shall need my first example by early(ish) September, so a helping hand by way of a suggestion or two would be terribly useful…

All-in-all, a very enjoyable weekend – though one experiment should not be considered a success.  The weekend, as the week before it, was really rather hot.  As a result, I thought I would attempt a currently popular fad in an attempt to maintain my feet at a comfortable temperature.  I have noticed that many folk eschew the sock with their summer footwear – and I talk here not of the undeniably wise choice to ensure that sock and sandal are never seen dancing cheek-to-cheek.  No, I refer to the sock-less foot being ensconced in deck shoe, plimsoll or trainer.  So, despite my advanced age, I decided to attempt this myself and chose a canvas shoe (a pair, in fact) as my weapon of choice – feeling that the canvas would be more forgiving to my tender pedal extremities and would also allow them to breathe.  How wrong I was, terrible damage to the edges of my little toes and many a toe-knuckle quickly followed this brief flirtation with fashion.  I am left chastened, with a mild limp, and a new found respect for the humble sock and its important role in my life.  I’m not saying I will rush out and buy a darning mushroom, but never again will a mock a sock.  Huzzah for hosiery!

Decomposing

Some may worry that my trip to Cambridge was somewhat of a waste, given my shortfall in the haemoglobin department.  Fear not, dear reader, the letting of a surfeit of blood is the excuse rather than the reason for me to visit Cambridge.

Where else could I sit in a café having an emergency cake-based snack and discuss the difficulties of playing the trombone and the variation in the necks of double-basses whilst my interlocutor accompanied the conversation on an octave mandolin?  Many thanks to Jack at the Indigo Café for this excellent – and very Cambridge – experience.

Much of my other leisure time was spend in the pursuit of music.  Thursday night (after my traditional dinner trip to Fitzbillies) I spent in the chapel of King’s College listening to a curious concert.  Part renaissance mass (by Josquin) and part serialist (maybe – I am no expert) electronica from Karlheiz Stockhausen and others.  This latter segment was delivered through a series of speakers positioned around the chapel and, given the lowered lighting, did somewhat bring to mind a successful séance at which some very unquiet spirits came to call.  The final piece of electronica, Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco by Jonathan Harvey, was by far the most successful for me – it had definite hints of being music and I would not object to hearing it again.  I realise my difficult with Mr Stockhausen’s oeuvre may be a failing in me – but, the sound of inept DIY in action would be more musical to my ears than Gesang der Jünglinge.  However, well worth the very modest price of admission for an interesting evening of music and sound, including some beautiful singing.

However, the real musical treats of the visit were free – part of the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Chamber Music.  Obviously aimed at students and academics but they also let in the great unwashed (and even me).  The visiting “prof” was pianist Angela Hewitt and she was a revelation.  I made it to two sessions (sadly returning home before her chat with John Butt, of the Dunedin Consort, on the Art of Fugue): a lecture-recital on performing Bach and a masterclass with some of the university’s finest student musicians.

After the lecture-recital, I am even more impressed by concert soloists and the amount of work that has to go into preparing a piece for performance.  Bach really only gives you the notes, so the player has to worry about dynamics (volume) and tempo (speed) – as well as play the notes successfully as written (which is the part I largely fail to do).  The pianist also has to work out her own fingerings – rather than my approach which is to hope that a finger happens to be near the target when required (big hands can be a boon) – and split out all the voices in the piece and choose the force to apply to each finger to bring the right voice to the fore.  I am trying to play pieces where each hand is required to produce a different volume – and this is often more than my ageing brain can manage, let alone varying the force from multiple fingers on the same hand.  I have a very long way to go (even with the somewhat limited portion of the lecture that I can claim to have fully understood) – we can only hope that the heat death of the universe is rather further away than currently believed or I have no hope (even should I happen to be immortal).

A further vastening (a word denied by WordPress and Mr Collins, but I’m sticking with it) of my musical horizons came in the masterclass.  First we heard what seemed to be an excellent rendition of the piece to be studied by 1, 2 or 3 students – and then we saw Angela take it to a different level, even when sight-reading a piece she had never played before.  The most extraordinary session was with Liszt’s Dante sonata – on first playing by a very fine student pianist this seemed typical Liszt: see how hard and often you can bang the keys, very much an endurance exercise for the alpha-male pianist.  Then Angela played it, and it became so much more – the dynamic range and emotional content was on another level altogether, you could hear the souls crying out in Hell.  I may have to re-visit my thoughts on Liszt – but will need to find the right performance.

I was also rather captivated by her effortless erudition on matters musical and well beyond.  She brought so much historical and literary context to bear on her preparation for performance.  For the Liszt, she referred the student to a document which provided very extensive notes on the piece – then off-hand mentioned that she’d only seen it in French but was sure an English translation must exist.  Would that I could manage such a thing, in any field of knowledge, but I am far too much the dilettante to ever acquire the necessary depth.  I fear I shall have to continue my attempts to dazzle from the shallows.  Within the last fortnight alone, I’ve wanted to study music (see above), microbiology and group theory to at least a post-grad level – but sadly have failed to make a start on any and by tomorrow I will, no doubt, have a new obsession.  I am too much the (lazy) intellectual butterfly – but perhaps the world of MOOCs may rescue me from my superficiality (or just broaden it even further).  Watch this space for further attempts at intellectual showing off:  look at me!  Look at me!